Prophets and Injustice
“Let justice roll on like a river,
and righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
“Let justice roll on like a river,
These powerful words are from the First Testament minor prophet Amos over 27 hundred years ago. Amos, who accurately assessed the signs of his time but who did not consider himself a prophet, dealt with a religious and political system that thwarted justice, took advantage of the poor, and disregarded strangers and the needy. Amos furiously denounced the hollow piety that took the place of moral responsibility. In his poetic rage, he prophesied that without justice, there certainly would be judgement.
Amos understood what was going on in his day. As he spoke out against an increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor, he condemned the religious and any worship they practiced that was void of justice. He declared, speaking on behalf of God:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, and
righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
In Amos’ preceding verses, the words are filled with wrath and cut deeply through the society’s moral fabric, exposing the depravity of those in power in his day:
Amos dealt with a religious and political system that thwarted justice, took advantage of the poor, and disregarded strangers and the needy.
“You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
And yet, in the middle of the rage, denouncement, and stern warnings, one cannot deny Amos’ concern, hope, and even love for his people, when he pleads with them, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”
Are we going to be “prudent” or are we going to be truthful?
Samuel Thomas, associate professor of religion at California Lutheran University, writes the following regarding this passage in Amos, “Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need. Because of these sentiments, this passage has become an important source for some observers of contemporary American religious and political culture. I think Amos would disapprove of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding increase in poverty, and he would rage against the displays of self-importance and exceptionalism in some quarters of American life. According to Amos, a nation is exceptional by the measure of how it cares for the lowest members of society; and a nation of religious hypocrisy and economic injustice is one that will perish.”
Amos clearly realizes the high price and dangers of speaking up. He states in chapter 5, verse 13, “Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” What an intense statement! I think we all could identify with it at some point in our lives when we had to make a difficult choice. Are we going to be “prudent” or are we going to be truthful? Are we going to be quiet in the face of injustice or will we speak against it, perhaps even putting ourselves at risk? If the prudent won’t speak up, then who will? Amos’ desire for justice overshadows his need for safety. I am reminded of the words of a great parliamentarian Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So Amos took courage and chose not to be quiet or prudent. He answered the call, and his admonishments eventually resulted in his arrest. Yet, the devastation brought on by the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom shortly thereafter, in 722 B.C.E., secured Amos’ place among the biblical prophets.
In order for a community to be the “city upon the hill” … it must adhere to justice and be built on principles of fairness and regard for others.
Centuries later, in 1630, while on board the ship Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the New World, John Winthrop, an English Puritan lawyer who led the first large wave of immigrants from England to America, conveyed the need for justice in his famous sermon A Model of Christian Charity, also known as City Upon a Hill. Although not specifically referencing Amos, Winthrop echoes his call for justice, declaring a vision for America and stating that, in order for a community to be the “city upon the hill” and a “light unto the nations,” it must adhere to justice and be built on principles of fairness and regard for others: “Two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy… If thou lovest God thou must help [thy brother].”
333 years after Winthrop’s historic speech, on August 23rd, 1963, we heard Amos’ words, this time verbatim, from another prophetic voice: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who appealed to the deep aspirations of oppressed people – people who longed for freedom and equality. His answering the call would not only see him abused and arrested; he would suffer an even harsher fate than that of Amos and become a martyr for justice.
In times like these, someone must call the mighty to account. Dr. King, invoking Amos’ words, proclaimed, “No more! No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He went on to say, “We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
What Makes a Prophet
There have always been souls willing to go against the tide and do the hard and necessary work, and I would argue that the time of prophets is not over and that they are still among us, even if their words may not make it into sacred writings. These prophets are individuals who possess astute perception of their times and excellent moral compass, who care about people more than their own reputation or safety, and who call the people to correct their course. And what is a prophet but a truth-teller, speaking truth to power and calling us back to righteousness? And what is righteousness if not choosing and doing what’s right and, more importantly, what’s just? Today, that prophetic voice may be mine, and tomorrow it might be yours.
One thing is for certain: we will not be “prudent” in holding our peace; that it be not said that our silence on the important issues of our day was our tacit approval to keep things the way they are. Because then there can be no real change, and we may never experience true equality, reconciliation, and recovery, all of which are so desperately needed in our society.
Injustices of Our Times
I have often wondered about the generation that, whether knowingly or ignorantly, was absent and silent during the persecution and annihilation of over 6 million Jews. We now look back and harshly judge them for not only what they did, but more concretely for what they did not do, or perhaps, what they should have known to do but, for whatever reason, chose to remain uninvolved, uninformed, and unmoved, even by what little they did know. Will we too be harshly condemned by future generations for the things we did or didn’t do?
What is a prophet but a truth-teller, speaking truth to power and calling us back to righteousness? And what is righteousness if not choosing and doing what’s right and, more importantly, what’s just?
As a person from a historically oppressed culture, I don’t have to consider injustice; it it a daily-lived experience. I sometimes wonder why there is such a resistance to the uniquely American ideals and values of equality, fairness, and justice for all people. Up until the last couple of years, there were those who believed that we lived in a post-racial society, that racism no longer existed. Dozens of national polls in America, covering the previous two decades, and some polls from the 60’s also supported this view. Today, while racism may be recognized as a national problem, 56 percent — a majority of white Americans — say that racism is not really an issue in their communities, and therefore, they don’t feel empowered or the need to do anything to address it.
Yet, some have even gone as far as to declare that such issues are only fabrications of people who choose to play the ‘race card’ to get their way instead of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Many of them believe that the real problem is actually among minority communities and that all of the racial injustice and inequality talk is to guilt and place blame on someone else, rather than owning their own illegal actions or cultural and personal failings. I’ve heard it all and perhaps you have heard things as well.
Regardless of what people believe about minority communities, the truth is, there is a great deal of suffering and pain in the lives of many, but apparently for some, it’s all ‘fake news’; there’s no one being torn from their loved ones and deported to countries that they have never known. Some insist that there is no unconscious bias in hiring practices, that all individuals are hired on their own merit, education, and talent, despite multiple studies that indicate that people with ethnic names are more likely to be overlooked even when their skill set and education supersedes other, particularly white, candidates. Some refuse to believe that there are community covenants that exist in our time that bar people of color from purchasing homes in certain areas. Black and brown folks can buy wherever they want, they say. But we know that this is not true. Selective profiling of black and brown individuals by the police and then finding some excuse to arrest them also does not exist, according to them. There is no systemic problem with police shooting of mostly black and brown men. If such does exist, it is because they were stealing something or doing something bad, for it must have been something they did to deserve it. Likewise, racial disparity in courtroom verdicts and sentencing does not exist, they claim. Everyone gets their fair share and shake at justice; because they are often judged by a group of their peers.
While these things are the reality for millions of people, none of these facts actually exist for some. If it is not a problem in their world, then they refuse to acknowledge that such things do exist. And if our experiences of America go unacknowledged, then our struggles and our stories, along with our hopes and dreams, are being dismissed, denied, and ‘disappeared’. Because we know that if we are out of sight, then truly we are out of mind. And if out of mind, then we are irrelevant, and our full participation in this American experience can be denied. This is the heart of injustice.
Our stories and the people behind them are real, and these stories must be told, even if others choose to ignore, deny, dismiss, or ‘disappear’ them.
If someone with nearly ultimate power tries to silence your peaceful protest, ignoring the reasons behind the protest, then you are being ‘disappeared’. When those in power dictate your motives and redirect the narratives to affect your own story negatively, you are being ‘disappeared’. As a person of color, all that I know, all that I can see and hear, and more importantly, what I feel tells me that many in our nation have conspired and pitted themselves against the uniquely American core values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and justice for all. But our stories and the people behind them are real, and these stories must be told, even if others choose to ignore, deny, dismiss, or ‘disappear’ them.
The Church and Its Founder
One would expect religious leaders and institutions to be first to recognize the injustices of our time and then rise up to answer the call in this very important moment in our history. But what we are witnessing from many mainline churches is silence and tacit approval. They have aligned themselves with a political party and appear to have cast away the tenets of faith and righteousness. It is as if the Bible never spoke to them of caring for the poor and embracing the strangers among us; treating others with respect and dignity; and even loving one’s perceived enemy. And when a group denies its own creed, it becomes complicit in the injustice that we are seeing daily. Because when their words and deeds go directly against the words of Jesus, the founder of their faith, one might think that Jesus himself is being ‘disappeared’ from amongst those who claim to be his followers. Those on the outside look at the church and can hardly see Jesus, if at all.
A fresh approach to biblical doctrine is taking shape in the way that the life and passion of Jesus are viewed. It is posited that it wasn’t for the sins of the world that he gave up his life, but out of complete love for and solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, for the widows and strangers, for the voiceless and disabled. Jesus carried in himself the pain and anguish of the disinherited. In biblical scriptures, Jesus is not a high priest, removed and devoid of empathy with our weaknesses; he is one who was despised and rejected; a “man of sorrows” and one “acquainted with grief.” His suffering to the point of death was in solidarity with those who also suffered.
When a group denies its own creed to love and care for the marginalized, it becomes complicit in the injustice.
Jesus told his followers in Mathew’s Gospel, “For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the the righteous asked him, when did they do all these things. He answered, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
In contrast, Jesus condemned the religious who failed to live out his virtues. He remarked, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and, in your name, perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The Arc of the Moral Universe
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In fact, he was paraphrasing the words of the Rev. Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810, who called for the abolition of slavery and stated the following in one of his sermons: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”
The universe bends toward justice often through the choices and actions of regular people, like you and me.
I personally believe that the “universe bends toward justice” often through the choices and actions of regular people, like you and me. In the end, will it be our silence and our inaction or will it be our passionate and committed service to the idea of justice and equality, aligned with the sense of our own purpose and solidarity with those who are most at risk in our nation, that wins the day? I pray that it is the latter. I pray that it will be our love for one another that overwhelms the darkness, ushering us into a new marvelous light of healing and reconciliation.
And so, the next time we witness or realize the presence of injustice and receive the proverbial call from the universe, or from our conscience, I pray that we answer that call. I pray that we find the courage passionately to stand up for justice with love in our hearts, because this is the stuff of which prophets are made.